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Patient Story

Tyrone Hills

To all the men out there who'd rather not think about prostate cancer, Tyrone Hills has this to say: "Either you deal with it or it will deal with you."

Hills is recovering from prostate cancer, and he's adding his voice to the many around the Midlands who are prodding men to, yes, get pricked and probed. Prostate screenings come in two forms: the PSA test, a simple blood test, and the Digital Rectal Exam (DRE). 

Health experts hope men will get both but agree that a PSA screening is a move in the right direction. Getting men to take that simple test, however, is no easy task. Women, MaLinda McCray says, may get frustrated about men's reluctance "After all," she says, "look at what we go through every year with our tests." But wives, mothers, sisters and daughters can be powerful motivators to get men to learn more.

McCray works with Palmetto Health's Office of Community Services, which partners with churches and community groups to operate the Real Men Prostate Health Campaign. The campaign emphasizes education and early detection, because the symptoms of prostate cancer tend to show up long after the cancer has spread. 

Prostate cancer, McCray says, is a slow-growing cancer, "very treatable," a fact that makes the death rate in South Carolina even more tragic.  According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, the state ranks third in the nation in deaths from prostate cancer, with mortality rates among African-American men twice as high as those for Caucasians. "That's why we have to be creative," McCray says.

The Real Men campaign takes educating and screenings to places where men feel comfortable. One of the most successful partnerships is with Brookland Baptist Church, where Adreane Burgess, a research nurse at Palmetto Health, is director of the Brookland Baptist health and wellness program.

"We've been doing this for five or six years," Burgess says. The church had added prostate cancer and education to established men's health events at the church. She says men know it's just a finger stick for the PSA test but still, "They're terrible. We tell them this is not just for you, this for your wife. This is for your family. One little test that can save your life," she says.

That appeal, combined with free and convenient screenings, seems to be working. The Real Men campaign encourages friendly competition among its partner churches and awards $1,000 prizes to the top programs. Brookland Baptist has been first or second every year since they joined the partnership.

McCray says Real Men works best when men have some trust. "Pastors can be a great asset," she says. Burgess agrees and says, "We talk to 100 or so deacons and say, 'you guys need to come.'" Churches create customized plans that work for their members. "We encourage partners to do health advocacy plans, in writing. They're very creative," McCray says.

September is National Prostate Health Month, and partners will ramp up their efforts, though Palmetto Health works with churches to host free screenings throughout the year. Since the program started in 1998, nearly 30,000 men have been screened.

"Most people fear the word cancer, and it makes sense," McCray says. Combine that with a lack of knowledge about the prostate and you get a big need for education. "Education is crucial," says McCray about the prostate, "because most people don't know where it is or what it does."

The prostate is a small gland located near the bladder and when healthy, is about the size of a walnut. It's involved in the production of semen.  Except for skin cancer, cancer of the prostate is the most common cancer in American men.

Doctors would prefer that men get both tests available: The Prostate Specific Antigen or PSA test is a blood screening that measures levels of a chemical in the blood.  With a Digital Rectal Exam or DRE, a healthcare provider can feel the gland and check for abnormalities. "Most men opt out of the DRE," McCray says of the Real Men screenings, "but we do encourage both and provide both free."

Men should seek out testing starting at age 50 if they are Caucasian, at age 40 if they are African-American.  Aside from the added risk that African-American men bear, men are at greater risk if they eat a diet high in fat or have a family history of prostate cancer among their first degree relatives (father, son or brother). Also, men's risk increases as they age. Seventy percent of men diagnosed are over the age of 65.

Symptoms of prostate cancer include frequent urination, pain in the pelvic area, and blood in the urine. If a man notes any of these, he should see a doctor. Treatment varies, depending on the age of the man and the degree of the cancer.  Some men will require surgery to remove the prostate gland and surrounding tissue. Others may need radiation therapy. In other cases, a man may pursue a watchful waiting course of treatment, monitoring the cancer's growth and delaying action.

Tyrone Hills says the Real Men program helped save his life.  A young 51-years-old, Hills is a general contractor who shoulders the responsibility of caring for two daughters and his 87-year-old mother.  He got a free PSA screening through his mother's church, and it verified that his numbers were too high.

"I wasn't educated enough. This is a silent killer. You really don't see the symptoms," Hills says of his experience. "And the chances are you're going to have to deal with prostate cancer. You need to find someone you feel at ease talking to."

A biopsy revealed that Hills did, indeed, have cancer. He's since had surgery. A recent PSA showed his numbers are nearly zero. "That was beautiful," he says. "It's been a rough road, but God is good," Hills adds.

But while Hills has turned to his faith for support, he also urges men to take charge of their own health. "The main person responsible for your healthcare is you. Be aggressive to get the care you need."

Did you know?

  • Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among American men, after skin cancer.
  • A healthy prostate is about the size of a walnut.
  • African-American men die of prostate cancer at twice the rate of Caucasian men.
  • Prostate cancer is slow-growing and treatable.
  • Seventy-percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are over the age of 65.
  • Most symptoms don't show until the cancer is advanced.